The race for the 1999 Formula One World Championship was turned upside down after an incredible Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang this morning.
Michael Schumacher returned after a four-month injury-induced absence and set up a Ferrari 1-2, handing the victory to his title challenging team-mate Eddie Irvine. The result gives the Irishman a four-point lead over McLaren's Mika Hakkinen going into the final round of the championship at Suzuka in Japan in two weeks time.
In the end, the race boiled down to a spectacularly effective display of Ferrari teamwork. Schumacher initially looked like he was going to leave the field standing, pulling out a three second lead within two laps, but on the third tour he slowed and allowed Irvine to assume the lead.
David Coulthard put in one of his most impressive performances of the season, literally elbowing Schumacher aside and quickly tagging onto Irvine's rear wing. Any thoughts of McLaren team tactics were destroyed however, when Coulthard retired after just 14 laps with an electrical problem.
His departure left Hakkinen entirely at the mercy of the Ferrari's. Schumacher, on a one-stop strategy, spent most of the race delaying his Finnish adversary and allowing Irvine to make a break. This plan worked so well that when Hakkinen rejoined after his second stop, he was not only behind the Ferrari's, but also Johnny Herbert's Stewart.
With the McLaren out of the way, all that remained was for Schumacher to slow down once more and hand Irvine the victory. Meanwhile the frustrated Hakkinen took several laps to find a way past Herbert and had to settle for third.
Fourth and five places for the two Stewarts move the team ahead of Williams and up to fourth in the constructors' championship. Herbert and Rubens Barrichello were in touch with the lead group throughout the race, but lacked the absolute pace to get properly involved in the McLaren/Ferrari battle.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen drove a typically tenacious race to come from 14th on the grid to sixth, challenging the Stewarts in the closing stages, while the rest of the field found it exceptionally difficult to stay on the tarmac.
Giancarlo Fisichella and Damon Hill got together at the first corner, putting Hill out of the race and badly delaying the Italian. Pedro Diniz, Ricardo Zonta and Alex Zanardi all managed multiple trips through the scenery, while it was a miracle that Jacques Villeneuve managed to continue for another ten laps after spinning and clouting a barrier.
Ralf Schumacher also crashed out of his own accord, and neither Prost lasted long. Jarno Trulli's car expired in a cloud of smoke on the parade lap and Olivier Panis duly joined him on the sidelines five laps later.
That was all an irrelevance today however. As bizarre as it sounds, Eddie Irvine will go to the Japanese Grand Prix as a strong title favourite, with the advantage of local knowledge of the Suzuka circuit, and the valuable back-up of Michael Schumacher, whose staggering comeback performance in Malaysia will be remembered for years to come.
Results from the Malaysian Grand Prix:
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Pedro de la Rosa